Mission to search Malaysia Airlines crash site in Ukraine ends over safety concerns


Cars with members of Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) drive near the eastern Ukrainian city of Debaltseve, in Ukraine, Wednesday. (Roman Pilipey/EPA)

The Dutch-led mission to retrieve human remains and evidence from the site of the Malaysia Airlines crash over eastern Ukraine was halted Wednesday because of security concerns.

In announcing the abrupt pullout, only six days after the search officially started, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said it was too dangerous for the team to continue working in the war zone. He promised families of the 298 crash victims that the search would resume when Ukraine is “more stable.”

The team of forensics experts from the Netherlands, Australia and Malaysia did not reach the site until July 31, about two weeks after the plane was shot down, because of fighting between government troops and pro-Russian separatists. The team expected to find many human remains but largely recovered only personal effects because local residents and emergency workers already had picked up many bodies and body parts.

The team, however, searched only three of six areas it had identified as places where more remains and possessions were likely to be. The experts acknowledged Wednesday that more remains may be languishing in fields, woods and ponds that they never got around to searching.

“We cannot say there aren’t,” said Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg, the head of the recovery team.

The decision to abort the search was made on a day when the team’s work was interrupted by small-weapons fire nearby. The team had to seek shelter.

Afterward, monitors with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who have been helping the experts maneuver their way across multiple front lines and checkpoints, told them that it was no longer safe to remain at the crash site, according to Aalbersberg.

“The security situation has worsened in recent days, tensions have risen, and the crash site has become less and less accessible,” he said. “The experts are not able to perform their task adequately.”

During their first forays into the widely scattered debris fields, the experts found some human remains, which they placed into ambulances and had flown to the Netherlands for identification. But in recent days, they have found only victims’ possessions, including photo albums, passports, jewelry, diaries and stuffed toys.

The suspension of the search means that there will be no more collection of evidence that could help prove what or who was responsible for the plane’s downing. The airliner’s data-collection devices, or black boxes, have been retrieved, however.

“I’m confident when the situation stabilizes we will continue our search,” Aalbersberg said.

Carol Morello is the diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, covering the State Department.
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